- triggerwarning - grief, alcohol

I plunked down into the leather couch and tugged the patchwork quilt over my legs. Maria, my ex-wife, made it during the five long years of our marriage. She made it for Amy, our little daughter.

I petted the fabric, fingers tracing the sewed areas, for the hundredths time, maybe for the hundred-thousandths time by now…

It had been vibrant and colorful, with the reds and blues and yellows thoughtfully arranged on twenty to thirty-five inches. Baby animals playing under the stars and the moon. Pink hearts lined beneath those little paws. My fingertips knew all the stitches.

It was one of Maria’s wonderful pieces. You could feel how she poured her heart, her soul, into it. Like she did with Amy. Now it was dirty, soiled with life and death, but I’d never dare to wash it.

There was this big brownish incrusted stain on the upper corner, where the bunnies met the puppies. That thing… It was evidence, that I killed Amy. My hand hovered over the dark spot. Eventually, my fingertips brushed over the dried edges of the caked brown. The oxygen got up and left the room.

I shifted my legs and put the throbbing, stiff one unto the coffee table. The old injury hurt more than ever. Bad weather was coming, maybe a blizzard. My sock was torn, big toe peeking from the knitted green wool. Under my heel, one of the magazine towers collapsed and spilled to the floor. I felt my knee protest. That car accident took not only my agility but also my best buddy, Eric… But that seemed more than a lifetime away.

The empty baked beans can wobbled and fell nearly off. I nudged it with my toe and pushed it back. It stood still again, kept the empty Ravioli can company.

I had a whiskey bottle wedged into the couch, nestling between my left side and the elbow rest. That was what numbed the pain best, as long as I kept my brain fogged up. I pulled it out, the black cap went bye-bye.

„Another wasted hour without being hammered.“ Talking to myself was a bad sign, but I forgot what for. The smell of my armpits hit me. Disgusting… The amber liquid looked like blood.

I stared out of the living room window. It was snowing, again. The winter afternoon proceeded to be a real pain in the butt. Grey wooly twilight bloomed forth into the room. My old tattered shelves went up to the ceiling. The spines of the books crowded the space on the planks. They sucked up the rest of the light seeping in.

The cold started to tingle under my skin. I’d have to fire up the stove, eventually. Another ghostly night was stretching its tentacles towards me, to pull me under and drown me in its unnatural silence. I had to get there first, no matter what. I didn’t bother to switch the lights on. No need to, the bulb would only chase away the shadows in the room. It couldn’t chase away the shadows that mattered most.

I took a big gulp from the bottle. It etched all the way down to the midnight of my soul. But it burnt much less, than Amy’s absence. The hollow icy feeling crept from my limbs into my guts. I hated this part most. It was a race, a goddamn race! The night was coming and I wasn’t drunk… Not yet.

I had to turn up the misery static in my head! Everything was better than silence. I swallowed another mouthful of cheap liquor.

On bad days, I could hear Amy running through the house, looking for me.

“Daddy, daddy?” She’d find me and hug me with all her might. “I luv’ you this much!” Then she’d throw out her little hands as far as she could, to show me how much. “Luv’ me too?” I told her, I loved her more than the stars, the moon, the mountains and the woods together. “How big is that, daddy?” Then I’d throw out my arms, and she’d giggle her head off.

On unbearable days, I actually saw Amy playing outside, in the snow. She’d sing princess in the woods. Her quilt blanky draped around her shoulders, like a cape. Pink beanie on top of her blonde piggy tails, matching pink mittens on her little hands. Then she’d stop mid-play to wave and blow me kisses. And I’d wave back at her before I’d realize, that she wasn’t there… Couldn’t be there. That moment always crushed me. It added another crack to the tally.

The lump in my throat grew bigger. How was it possible, that memories could punch such immense holes in my heart? And why did my ticker keep keeping on? Stupid thing… I wished someone would barge in, and knock me out already.

Today it was exactly two years ago that my little darling died.

Maria and I, we died with her. Our bodies and minds kept moving through this world, on our oblivious courses. Maria stopped with nearly everything, except cooking and baking. I barely ate, but she cooked anyway. She went shopping for hours, and I threw out the food that went bad.

We didn’t talk. There was nothing I could have told her, to soothe her. Nothing that mattered, nothing I could take back. Her pain must’ve been pure hell. And then, she had to put up with me too, the man, who caused the greatest tragedy of her life. After our words died, we let our tears die too. The days of our marriage were numbered. Easy maths… It was better that way.

Maria left me. After eight months of constant grief, booze and silence, I didn’t blame her. No one would… The shape I was in, it must’ve been sickening. No one merited to endure that, or me, her the least. After all, I still loved her or had loved her. That counted something, I guessed.

At some point, I stopped sleeping. Hoping that I’d pass out, I emptied all liquor bottles I could find. Nothing happened. I sat on the couch, day and night, reliving the worst day of my life.

God. I’d give anything to undo that day.

On that special winter day, two years ago, I went into the woods behind the shed to chop down a dead birch tree. Wind gusts swept over the tips of the huge firs around our house. A blizzard headed this way. I wanted to be done before it arrived. Amy begged I let her come along.

„No, Vince! She’ll get a cold, or pneumonia.“ Maria complained, but I took her with me anyway. „You know how she is! She’s gonna stay out too long. And won’t be able to say no to her. You never are.“ I wished I had listened to my wife. She was the smarter one.

„Oh, come on, let her have some fun,“ I told her. „Nothing’s gonna happen. I’ll take good care, hon. Don’t speak of the devil.“ She felt guilty, I could tell. The way she turned to hide her flushed cheeks, and waved her hand, made me go.

I had Amy on my arm, she kicked and wanted to go by herself. My little girl always had her own head, stubborn as her daddy. At least, that’s what Maria always said. I told my baby to stay nearby. But if she wanted to help, she could collect some cones for the stove, to start fires with. I pointed at the cones lying around a couple of feet away and turned around. Her pleased child song was so cute. She pretended she was the princess of the woods, mistress over the mountain. She wanted the cones to collect themselves. What a great idea! She hummed so happily, how she was friends with the wolves, the bears, and the deers…

My ax flew up and down. Her singing faded and got washed away by the rising stormy wind. As the birch fell, I couldn’t hear her anymore. The blizzard was reaching us faster than the weather forecast predicted. The thick wall of clouds was already towering over our house. I was ready to head back inside and called for Amy. But I couldn’t find her. Where was she? I looked everywhere.

Gone! Dissolved into thin air, I screamed for her, running around. How far could she be? Where did she wander off to? The snowstorm started howling. I told her to stay nearby! I could barely see my hand before my eyes. Maria’s voice reached me, but I kept screaming for Amy, until my voice gave up, and I coughed blood. Maria was the one who found me and led me back to the house. On my own, I would have been lost. Maybe it was pure luck or bad luck. Looking back — I wouldn’t mind if I died that day. Freezing to death wasn’t so bad, I was told.

What followed was worse than death.

Amy didn’t turn up… Not until two days later.

The search party combed the area after the storm. They had dogs. Nevertheless, it was me, who found her. I’d say it was just punishment. I saw one of her little pink mittens under a broken fir log, several hundred yards away, from the spot I last saw her. I had no idea how, but I pulled her out, wrapped her in her blanket. It was still around her shoulders. I scooped her up and roared for Maria.

After that, everything was kind of a blur.

Maria kept wailing, banging her fists on my back, then I somewhat remember us three, jumping into the pickup. My wife was clutching at the wheel, like a drowning man. We skidded down the icy road to Points, where the doctor was.

And all I could do was to hold Amy tight, beg her to stay with me. She was so cold. So strangely stiff, I tried to warm her, by rubbing her. Her tiny shape burnt itself into my arms. I would never forget her weight, and how cold her fingers were. I feared they’d go black and she’d lose her hands… An eternity passed, but that didn’t matter. That eternity never passed for me.

Someone bent up my fingers, my arms, unwrapped me from Amy’s little body. The doctor talked to me. I saw his mouth move, never heard a sound though. His rubber gloved hand undid the quilt. I saw what I held in my arms. That wasn’t my Amy anymore. It was a bloody rag doll.

I couldn’t peel off my eyes from the misshaped head, the clotted blood from nose and ears, her blue eyes staring to the left and to the right, at the same time. That had no resemblance to my Amy!

They told me that I screamed. I kept screaming. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t shut up, I guess. They made me stop, by sticking a needle into my arm, sending me spiraling into unconsciousness.

*

Bang.

My arms flew up.

Bang!

What was that?

Something hit the window, must’ve dozed off.

I blinked. A bird? My tongue felt fuzzy, stuck to my palate. Was that a snowball?

I should have a look. If that was a bear, or raccoons going through my trash cans, I had to deal with that. It was much darker now.

Where did I put the shotgun? Was it even loaded? Ammo was somewhere in the kitchen.

The hard labor of standing up started, and the quilt slit down to the carpet. I put the empty bottle on the table.

The dim light shining in outlined the furniture. It was enough so I wouldn’t bump into them on my way to the window. I stood there for a while. My heart tried to fall out of my ribcage, and I had to steady my spinning head. The hole in my guts had its own gravity center. It tore me down into some oblivious pool of thick blackness. As the world stopped moving, I hobbled towards the window. It took me some time to reach the curtains.

Nobody outside, just the pale blueish grey cover over everything I knew. No tracks visible. The soft light only a snowy winter evening would emit dipped the scenery into a ghostly glow. I snorted. Was I already that drunk, that I started rhyming?

BANG!

„Whoa!“ From somewhere on the left, a snowball slammed against the glass. Who threw that? It spooked me, I almost keeled backward. Just in time, I caught myself on a fistful of the fabric hanging near me. The curtain tore. A heatwave rolled over me, from scalp to toe. My knees wobbled a bit more, but I stood again, fairly secure. I peeked out. Something moved.

Then I saw it. And what I saw, made me sober the instant.

„Daddy!“ Amy’s voice rang clearly in my ears. „Daddy!“ She danced around in the snow, her blanky around her shoulders, her pink beanie on top of her head. „Let’s play!“ My jaws hurt. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I wanted to scream. The words were glued to the back of my throat.

How was this possible?

Was that really my baby? Her blonde piggy tails swooped up and down as she hopped around. „I luv’ you!“ She pulled my heartstrings. It stung and burnt, something deep inside of me cracked. As if she knew, what I longed for, she blew me kisses.

My hand reached out. Then she started to sing the princess in the woods. The window glass was cold to my touch, fogged up around my fingertips.

She was still there, dancing and singing. „Snowman, daddy, snowman!“ She cheered and beamed up to me.

Amy! I wanted to call her name. Ugly noises left my throat instead. My little darling was back! The yard blurred and swam. Something warm ran down my cheeks.

She started to form a big snowball, stretching out her little tongue, like she used to when she was concentrating really hard.

„AMY!“ I sobbed. She giggled and waved for me to come outside. „I’m coming,“ I said. „I’m coming!“ As fast as I could, I hobbled towards the entrance door. „Please be there, please be there. Please…“ I prayed and squeezed my eyes shut. Oh, God! Please be there! Keep being there!

My left hand tore the door open. I felt snowflakes landing on my hand, my face, my toe. Bone-chilling cold greeted me, but I didn’t care. My eyes flew open.

„Amy! Baby!“ She stood there, waiting for me. Only an arm’s length, only a few steps away. „Where have you been? I was looking for you all over.“ She shrugged, like little children do, with all of her body. Embarrassed she pointed behind her, then to herself. „You were there? In the woods?“ I asked, barely believing it. She nodded happily. Was I looking in the wrong places? Was she there all along, waiting for me? Amy cocked her head as if catching my thought.

„Uh-huh.“ She pulled her shoulders up. „I was waiting really, really long, but you didn’t come. And I was so sleepy. And when I woke up, I was scared, that you be mad, if I come out now.“ How could I ever be angry at my little baby?

I threw my legs out.

Long eager steps took me towards my darling. I closed the distance between us in a blink, arms stretched out for a hug. The snow melted under my feet, my socks were wet. I fell to my knees, but this time it didn’t hurt. Snowflakes landed on my neck and hands. They weren’t cold at all, felt like feathers. My heart raced as if it tried to reach Amy before I did.

The firs around the house rustled and murmured. I felt them smile at me. They were making it up to me… Finally. After these years in agony, they were giving me my daughter back.

I embraced Amy, inhaled the air around her, as deep as I could. She smelled like children ought to. She smelled of cookies, crayons and strawberry shampoo. My arms remembered her body and welcomed it with force. I couldn’t hold back, I tugged her close and squeezed. „Oh, Amy! Amy, Amy, Amy. I worried sick, baby.“ Those words disappeared in her piggy tails and mittens.

„Shhh, daddy. It’s okay.“ Her voice dripped into my ear. „Don’t cry.“ Her tiny hand petted the back of my skull, caressed my cheeks and nape. It felt like heaven. I had her back, back in my arms. I’d never let go again. Never! „It’s okay, daddy.“ For a second, her voice buzzed with distortion. „I stay.“ No, that was only my imagination. „Forever.“

That voice!

I yanked my head back, to look at Amy’s perfect little face. Everything like I remembered: big brown eyes, long arched lashes above them, a little nob of a nose and a small mouth with big soft lips, pink cheeks.

Where did that voice come from, then? „Was that you, baby?“ I asked her. She stared into my face. I couldn’t read anything in it. Something was off… I pulled slightly back to observe her more intently. In my guts, a hot molten iron ball formed. Then it hit me.

Her eyes!

They had been blue two years ago. The color of the sky, but they were dark now. Brown. Mud brown, bark-colored, stone grey… How?

How was that possible? Eye colors did not change, did they? The longer I looked, the darker they went.

Amy’s mouth twitched, stretched into a sick grin. Her eyes glistened black, like the eyes of a rat. They seemed to eat the light around her. „Amy? Baby?“ I swallowed, didn’t sound like me. „Amy?“ Her eyes bulged. „AMY! NO!“ The eyes protruded from their sockets. No! Oh God, no! I pulled back, as far as I could. They popped with a soft squishing sound.

My fingers dug into the snow beneath. She took a step forward. My stomach turned. Those eye holes zeroed in on me, tuned to some otherworldly channel. Viscous blackness oozed out, dripped down her cheeks.

That unholy distorted noise spoke with my daughter’s mouth. „I’m here, daddy.“ I had to force my guts back down. That syrupy mass moved and looked as if alive. It stretched away from the soft arch of her cheeks, forming protruding slimy fingers. The tentacles branched towards me ever so slowly, like the eye tentacles of a black giant snail.

Amy’s grin widened to full teeth. Too many teeth in that mouth! „What’s wrong, daddy?“ Oh, God! No!

I threw what I had grabbed. Snow and ice flew up into her face. She shrieked. „Don’t you luv me?“ I pulled further back but lost my balance. The back of my skull hit something. Icy sensation burned on my skin, the powdery snow slipped into my pullover and shorts. I felt I was too big for my skin. She took another step. „Daddy?“ I gasped. She loomed over me, in the most horrible way I could imagine.

Suddenly, the wind picked up. Its force bent the firs. They squealed and groaned.

The gust swept over the roof, whooshed tiny ice shards into my face, into my eyes. It stung, like pins and needles. I couldn’t see. My eyes watered, trying to get the flakes out.

Thank God!

She chuckled, as I scurried towards the house on all four.

That thing!

Not. My. Daughter!

Not my Amy. I saw a blotch of pink reach into the furious white gusts. „You are not Amy!“ I screamed into the howling sound around me. It wiped all silhouettes away, replaced it with a half transparent wall of white.

Sick laughter reached me. It was the kind of psycho laughter you’d never want to hear from a four-year-old. And never, ever, from your own four-year-old.

„Are you scared, daddy?“ She buzzed with her deep and guttural voice. The way she whirred chilled my blood. The hair on my neck stood on end.

Where was the gun? Where the hell was it? I had to get the gun. „Dumb brain, remember!“ Behind the door!

Somewhere ahead, only a few steps away, there had to be my house, entrance door still open. „Come on. Keep moving!“ I cheered myself on. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t see it. More laughter drifted to me, over the wind gusts. The ice whooshing past my face glistened, reflecting some soft light. Its source seemed to be somewhere behind me, where my fake daughter stood. It even threw my shadow in front of me. „Don’t look back!“ I told myself. Whatever that was, I mustn’t look back.

My fingers stretched forward. Finally, I could feel and grab a piece of rectangular wood and carpet. The open door! I had reached it! The strange glow faded rapidly.

I pulled myself up, clutching at the doorframe. Clouds of breath vapor puffed fast into the darkness of the house. „Stand up!“ I commandeered myself. My bad knee throbbed, it wouldn’t stretch properly. But I got up, anyway.

The wind had blown in enough snow, that it blocked the door, no thought on moving it. I propped my back against the hallway wall, swept off the framed family photo. My numbed muscles didn’t move. I reached after it but was too slow. It fell to the ground.

The sound of shattered glass ripped the silence. No! Curled fingers hovered over broken Maria and Amy. Too late. Again! They gazed up at me, their eyes pierced me between the cracks in the glass. I felt pinned in place. They kept smiling happily. That smile… They were my last link to a better world, to a good and bright place, where things worked out just fine. Hadn’t I atoned? How much longer?

Something cracked. Their smiles tortured me, mocked me… But that wasn’t their fault, not at all… Only mine alone.

The shape of my daughter fogged up in the entrance. She materialized straight from the white wind gusts. Someone inhaled sharply. Everything was right again, back to normal, back to perfect. It was the little girl I saw earlier through the window. She was my Amy again.

„Daddy?“ She stood in the doorway, scared. A betrayed expression crawled over her face. As if I had taken her favorite plushy away, and have been waving it in front of her, out of reach. „Daddy? Are you mad?“ Her wary words trembled over to me. She was honestly hurt, and about to cry. I knew that face, the way her chin and lower lip quivered.

„What are you?“ I shouted, not sure I wanted to know. „What the hell are you?“ There was no answer to that. No answer she could give. Amy held her arms out, wanted me to pick her up. I was a real jerk, asking such stupid questions. How cruel from me, showing her my fear and hate — to a child! When did I start venting on my daughter?

What was wrong with me? I’d never do that, at least I thought I’d never do that.

But she wasn’t my baby girl, was she?

She was something else. But did that make her less of a child? Amy grimaced, big tears formed clinging to her lashes. No. She was nearly my baby girl. I knew, if she started crying, she wouldn’t be able to stop. She’d get those red spots all over her face and neck and hands, and she’d keep sobbing for hours. Like her mommy used to when she got upset.

„Daddy? Up! Up, up.“ She demanded a bit more urgent. „Please?“ I took a step forward to her. Couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t want to. „Pleeeease?“ Come on, old man, pull yourself together!

„Are you… Amy?“ I asked carefully. Say something else! She nodded so eagerly, that her beanie almost came down. How strange… My hands shook, my knees almost gave out under me. Where did this feeling come from? A warmness spread from my navel to my back, leaving me without strength. She beamed up at me with her dark eyes. They glowed with a soft fire. „Are you really my baby girl?“

„Mhm.“ She smiled wholeheartedly. She believed it. I was her father. I wanted to believe it too.

That was crazy! But she was so real. On my doorstep, she stood there, wanting to be held. Like any other little girl would want to be held by her daddy.

Amy from the photos wasn’t here, Maria wasn’t here either. My wife would think I was crazy… And maybe I was. Even considering something this twisted…

I kept thinking, that somehow, I got a second chance. And this time, everything was going to be okay. I’d take good care of her, I’d protect her, no matter what.

Should I hold back? Should I run? Where to? And why? I didn’t want to. Not anymore… I let my body do, what it longed for. I picked Amy up. She had the same weight, as the last time I held her.

My Amy! My other Amy, my second Amy. Her innocent child smell hit me. Crayons, cookies, and strawberries. I’d never want to miss that again. My knees trembled a bit, butterflies fluttered in my stomach. This time I was going to be a proper father.

„Are you hungry, baby?“ She nodded and sighed with relief. „What do you want to eat?“ There had to be pancakes dough somewhere in the cupboards. „I can make us some pancakes with syrup and chocolate chips. How’d you like that?“

She hugged my neck and gave me a big wet smooch on my cheek. „You’re the bestest daddy in the woods.“ I smiled.

Something bright and warm whirled in my chest.

I — I thought, this time…

I could be happy.

One thought on “The Stain

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